Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the CycleWritten evidence submitted by Stephen Halliday (DP190)

The following submission to the Committee follows correspondence with Julian Huppert, M.P. for Cambridge, where I live and sit as a magistrate. I have been a magistrate for 15 years and the following comments are based on my experiences in that capacity. I do not claim to speak on behalf of other magistrates though I believe that many share my feelings of despair.

For the last 15 years I have dealt with an endless and ever-growing stream of people whose criminal behaviour is due to their use of drugs. It sometimes involves violence, including murders over territory, though the overwhelming majority of offences are those of dishonesty. Shoplifting and other forms of theft are commonplace though burglary and robbery also feature. The offenders, who are rarely employed, steal to support their drug habits which usually involve Class A drugs. We try everything from supervision orders and unpaid work to drug treatment and testing orders, intensive supervision orders and curfews. It is easier to place people on drug treatment orders than to get them off drugs. Addicts have to want to come off drugs more than they want the drugs and they are not noted for their ability to think ahead. When all else fails, with reluctance and in despair, magistrates send serial thieves to prison, not because we have any illusions about its rehabilitative effects but because shopkeepers and others deserve some protection. I often reflect that, without the huge volumes of drug-related crime, we would be a rather law-abiding society.

I follow debates on drugs policy with the attention one would expect of a magistrate who deals with the consequences of the drugs business. I hear well-informed, intelligent and well-intentioned people arguing for a harder crackdown on drugs; and equally well-informed, intelligent and well-intentioned people advocating the de-criminalisation of many or all drugs. I do not know which is right but I am certain that the matter needs to be examined and I would vote for any party which undertook to set up a Royal Commission on the subject. Present policies are not helping to reduce the level of drug dependency and all that follows from it. When I’m not a magistrate I am a semi-retired historian and I can’t help reflecting that in the 18th century the Kent coast was dominated by a criminal community devoted to smuggling. The appointment of more excise men simply added violence to dishonesty. The problem vanished when excise duties were reduced to a level that made smuggling pointless. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.

Should the Committee wish to question me on the subject I would be happy to make myself available for the purpose.

March 2012

Prepared 8th December 2012